science communication a contemporary definition

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  • Understanding of Science online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/09636625030122004 2003 12: 183Public Understanding of Science

    T. W. Burns, D. J. O'Connor and S. M. StocklmayerScience Communication: A Contemporary Definition

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    Science communication: a contemporary definition

    T.W. Burns, D.J. OConnor, and S.M. Stocklmayer

    Science communication is a growing area of practice and research. Duringthe past two decades, the number of activities, courses, and practitioners hassteadily increased. But what actually is science communication? In whatways is it different to public awareness of science, public understanding ofscience, scientific culture, and scientific literacy? The authors review theliterature to draw together a comprehensive set of definitions for these relatedterms. A unifying structure is presented and a contemporary definition ofscience communication positioned within this framework. Science commu-nication (SciCom) is defined as the use of appropriate skills, media, activities,and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses toscience (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest,Opinion-forming, and Understanding. The definition provides an outcomes-type view of science communication, and provides the foundations for furtherresearch and evaluation.

    1. Surveying the field

    The meaning of science communication and other terms used in the field of scientificliteracy has been plagued by an unfortunate lack of clarity.1

    Science communication (SciCom) is not simply encouraging scientists to talk moreabout their work, nor is it an offshoot of the discipline of communications. Although peoplemay use the term science communication as a synonym for public awareness of science(PAS), public understanding of science (PUS), scientific culture (SC), or scientific literacy(SL)in fact many of these terms are often used interchangeablyit should not beconfused with these important and closely related terms.

    This paper establishes a clear definition of science communication by defining thecontemporary meaning of related termswherever possible using accepted definitions fromthe literatureand identifying where science communication fits. The proposed definition isparticularly applicable to science outreach and provides a conceptually simple basis forevaluating the effectiveness of science communication.

    2. Defining related terms

    To understand science communication, agreement needs to be reached about the meaning ofsome foundational terms.

    (Key words are in italics, and words in bold summarize core definitions.)

    SAGE PUBLICATIONS ( PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCEPublic Understand. Sci. 12 (2003) 183202

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  • The public

    The simplest and most useful definition of the public is every person in society. It isacknowledged that the public is a very heterogeneous group; it is as multifaceted andunpredictable as the individuals that compose it. In fact at least six overlapping groupswithin society (sometimes known as publics), each with its own needs, interests, attitudesand levels of knowledge have been identified for the purposes of science communicationactivities and/or research.2 These are:

    c Scientists: in industry, the academic community and government.c Mediators: communicators (including science communicators, journalists and other

    members of the media), educators, and opinion-makers.c Decision-makers: policy makers in government, and scientific and learned institu-

    tions.c General public: the three groups above, plus other sectors and interest groups. For

    example, school children and charity workers.c Attentive public: the part of the general community already interested in (and

    reasonably well-informed about) science and scientific activities.3c Interested public: is composed of people who are interested in but not necessarily well

    informed about science and technology.4

    Two other terms are also commonly used:

    c The lay public identifies people, including other scientists, who are non-expert in aparticular field.5

    c The science community or science practitioners are people who are directlyinvolved in some aspect of the practice of science.

    Together these groups form the public, and the public together with its customs, norms,and social interactions constitute a society.


    Participants are not the same as stakeholders (people with a vested interest in a particularoutcome) or clients (persons paying for a service), although they may also be these. In thecontext of this paper, participants are members of the public who are directly orindirectly involved in science communication.

    Examples of direct involvement include visiting a science center, attending sciencetheatre, or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper on a science-related matter. Thevenue, sponsor, and promoter of a science communication event may be classified asindirect participants (but may still have a large impact on the success, or otherwise, of theactual event).

    Participants are individuals who belong to the general public and may thereforespecifically include scientists, science communicators, businesses and members of themedia.

    Outcomes and responses

    Outcomes may be defined as the result of some action, and there is always at least oneresult of every reaction. Response has been defined as action, feeling, movement,change etc., elicited by stimulus or influence.6 While the meaning of the words response

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  • and outcome both equate to consequence, responses are more personal and immediate, andtherefore more dynamic.

    Science communication outcomes and responses may not be easy to study scientifically;they inevitably occur in the real world rather than the controlled conditions of a researchlaboratory and usually require skills from the social rather than the physical sciences. Inpractice, outcomes that are useful for evaluation or research are usually limited tomeasurable, fairly short-term and, in some way, quantifiable results. Deeper understandingof science communication may be revealed using qualitative methods. It is also important torecognize that significant long-term consequences of science communication may occur asparticipants contemplate their existing knowledge, encounter other new experiences, andreorganize their thinking.7


    Defining science is notoriously difficult. The Panel on Public Affairs of the AmericanPhysical Society, for example, proposed a definition that some describe as pure science:

    Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world andorganizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories. They wenton to explain that . . . the success and credibility of science is anchored in thewillingness of scientists to expose their ideas and results to independent testing andreplication by other scientists . . . (and) abandon or modify accepted conclusions whenconfronted with more complete or reliable experimental evidence.8 Many dictionaries(e.g., New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993) amplify this definition byhighlighting the use of the scientific method as the way of identifying any activity aspart of science. The report Science for all Americans identifies the fact that science iscarried out in, and consequently influenced by, its social context.9

    Many other terms are often grouped together under the banner of science. For example,mathematics may be viewed as the language of science. Technology and medicine arefrequently considered as applications of pure science, and engineering is often regarded asthe link between pure science and technology.10 In recognition of this problem, acronymssuch as S&T (Science and Technology), SME (Science, Mathematics, and Engineering),S&E (Science and Engineering), and SET (Science, Engineering, and Technology) are usedto describe more accurately or to group together science-related endeavors.

    There has been much discussion in the literature about the exact definition of science; inmost instances the word science has, either explicitly or implicitly, taken on a muchbroader contemporary meaning than just pure science.11 Most of the arguments in supportof scientific literacy and most of the assessments of its level include aspects of at leastmedicine and technology.12 In the context of science communication, science is deemedto include pure science (as defined above), mathematics, statistics, engineering,technology, medicine, and related fields.


    The simple dictionary definition of awareness as being conscious, not ignorant of . . .something is sufficient for the moment.13 It is only when the word awareness is used todescribe peoples relationship to science that it develops muc


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